EVANGELISM REVISITED

One of the burning issues in many churches is simply survival in a sea of conflicting and competing secular activities. Many historic churches - called often 'mainline'- find themselves trying to redefine themselves and establish some sense of relativity in modern life.  
 
One group is the United Methodist Church.  Since the 1970's their upward membership trend of the previous century has been steadily declining.  Many leaders sounded early calls to apply the breaks to trends and policies aiding in this decrease.  Books such as Wilke's "Are We Yet Alive?" (1986) and Scotts' "Restoring Methodism: 10 Decisions for United Methodist Churches in America " (2006)  explored steps that needed to be taken.
 
In recent years there is an increased focus on identifying and communicating the primary mission of the church ("Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world") and on doing things in new ways in order to improve reaching "new people" and sending the church into "new places." To this end plans of discipleship are encouraged with clearly measurable methods of assessment and a 'methodical' manner of tracking such assessment to determine success.
 
Imagine asking 'Methodists' - a nickname given to the band of people seeking spiritual revitalization through  measured, consistent, and methodical personal commitment -  to be methodical. It was ironic.
 
In reviewing many examples of these plans of discipleship, it was noted that they all  begin with the person joining the church.  Then a course of spiritual formation and missioned purpose was very clearly outlined.  It seemed that an important - actually a vital - step was missing.  It was one people in many of contemporary church groups appear to find uncomfortable.  It is historically summed up in the term "evangelism."
 
In the 1952 Book of Discipline there was a section  (para. 2030/pg. 655) "Program of Evangelism" that identified "the fundamental task of the church is individual and social salvation" and in another section "Call to Evangelism" (para. 2020/pg. 653): "Thank God for a strong, evangelistic church. Our desperate world desperately needs it. Neither science, nor knowledge, nor government, nor any human power or instrument can save us. We need God. Only the salvation manifest and available in Christ will suffice. Evangelism is the top-priority need of our time."  The section went on to emphasis that without that important component sermons, music, and programs were of no use and sorely missed their potential.
 
The 1945 Book of Worship of the Church and Home  (pg. 136)  even included a prayer "For Evangelism" that begged God to increase the "faith and zeal" of the people to diligently seek the salvation of people and work toward that goal with "a heart of love, sincerity of speech, and the power of the Holy Spirit," that they may be convinced to forsake "sin".
 
In the 1960 Discipline of the Methodist Church (para. 2029/pg. 708-709) there was a clear statement that " Every Christian is an evangelist, a bearer of the good news of God's care for all his children" and that it was "an inevitable expression of personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Our experience is that of two of his first disciples: "We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."  The Bishops noted that there were forces in the world that sought to compromise that goal: "secularism, nationalism, militarism, materialism, and sin in all its enticing forms."   
 
At the time of the 200th anniversary of Methodism in 1984 The Book of Discipline had reduced the topic of "evangelism" to a short phrase describing one work area of the local church whose task was "to make evangelism an ongoing priority ministry of the congregation to win people to a profession or a renewal of faith in Jesus Christ."  This group would suggest activities and monitor programs. (para. 261.4/ pg. 145-146).
 
Any plan of discipleship must include a plan of evangelism. We as Christians often turn to the metaphor of fishing when speaking of gathering people to come to Christ. In that parlance, any plan of discipleship is fishing without any bait.  To disciple means to teach someone.   As Paul the Apostle so ably asked, how can one who does not yet believe come to believe, and be a disciple, unless there is one who tells him or her first about the Christ?  If someone goes fishing they can have a plan as to what they will do with the fish they catch but unless they fish for them they will not have any fish!  So it is with too many 'plans of discipleship'.  Churches are waiting for the fish to jump into their boats. Then, and only then, will they make them 'disciples of Jesus Christ.'

Over the 20th century many approaches to finding the fish in the water were used: programs, more staff, social activity, community engagement, and other ploys. 

Any church wishing to move out into growth, renewal and reinvigoration will want to revisit that first step.  Leaders and church people will want to examine themselves to ask : "Do I know Jesus and does Jesus know me?" That is the bait on the hook that will attract others to meet the most important person they can ever know - Jesus Christ.  It is no bait and switch.  Introduce people you know or interact with daily. Introduce them to YOUR friend through friendship based and trustworthy relationships that share the personal and life transforming experience of Jesus Christ.
 
--Marilyn A. Hudson

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